County Update: As population ages, county government needs to prepare for serving more seniors’ needs

Staff Report - September 11, 2019 11:00 am
Meals on Wheels currently provides more than 210,000 meals to seniors annually. Photo credit Johnson County Area Agency on Aging.

Each week we provide a member of the Johnson County Board of County Commissioners the opportunity to share an update on what issues are catching their attention. This week, we have a column from 3rd District Commissioner Steve Klika. He’s co-authored the following with Pam Shernuk, vice-chair of the Johnson County Commission on Aging.

Earlier this year the Johnson County Board of County Commissioners (BOCC) identified three strategic priorities for 2019-2020:

  • 1. Complete/advance existing projects approved by voters and the Board of County Commissioners with efficiency and effectiveness.
  • 2. Strengthen and finance the appropriate level of service to meet the needs of the county’s vulnerable populations, pursuing innovative strategies.
  • 3. Develop a creative and innovative vision for a transit plan that is financially sustainable.

For the purpose of this article, we are going to focus on priorities two and three.

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Mahatma Gandhi once said, “The true measure of any society can be found in how it treats its most vulnerable members.” Not surprising, Johnson County has chosen to identify its most vulnerable populations, including the rapidly growing senior population, as one of its top priorities. There are currently more than 122,000 residents over the age of 60 living in Johnson County. That number is expected to rise dramatically over the next 10 years, as baby boomers “come of age.”

This segment of our population (those over 60) is serviced by the Johnson County Area Agency on Aging (AAA), led by its director, Dan Goodman. The Commission on Aging (COA) was created based upon the mandates of the Older Americans Act and serves in an advisory capacity to the AAA. The key role of the advisory board is to provide input, advocacy and advice in implementing services at the local level that address local needs.

Among the many services provided by AAA, Meals on Wheels (MOW) is one of the most well-known. Johnson County AAA currently provides approximately 280,000 meals annually, with 212,000 of those meals being home delivered through our MOW program. Home delivery is not only important for nutritional purposes, but also allows for much needed, regular well-being checks of our homebound seniors. The remainder of our meals are provided at our congregate meal sites, serving a total of more than 4,000 seniors.

Currently, all of the meals are prepared in a tiny 1,100 square foot kitchen in Olathe, then delivered to seven drop off locations strategically placed throughout the county. Approximately 1,000 volunteers deliver these meals via 59 different routes in a timely manner to maintain the temperature and integrity of the food. We have dozens of people on the waiting list to receive hot meals through this program, but because of space limitations, we are unable to meet their needs. The kitchen and the building where it is housed are in a state of disrepair and are scheduled to be demolished by early 2022 to make room for a new county building. That new building currently does not include a replacement kitchen for our MOW program.

In keeping with strategic priority #2, the BOCC needs to be proactive in ensuring the building and financing of a newer, bigger kitchen that will accommodate current clients, as well as those currently on the waiting list and all additional clients who will inevitably require assistance in the not-so-distant future. Research has been done and a ballpark estimate to build a larger (5,000 sq. foot) kitchen with the necessary features (food storage, packing storage, equipment, coolers, docks, ramps, etc.) is estimated to cost around $2.5 million. One possible location for this kitchen is in the new building scheduled for construction directly across the street from the current AAA offices. However, in the interest of saving time, the county also needs to consider other options including existing, vacant buildings that could be renovated to meet the needs of the MOW program.

Some in the county favor outsourcing the MOW program to an outside vendor. However, in doing so, we would lose our oversight of quality control, timely delivery (to make sure meals are delivered at the appropriate temperature) and client satisfaction. Other counties in the state that have tried this approach have experienced lower enrollment in the program because of dissatisfaction with the service and, in an extreme case, even experienced food poisoning because the meals were not delivered at the correct temperature. Johnson County is the standard by which other counties measure their own success. Others in the state look to us to display best practices.

We must act in a fiscally responsible manner to help care for this segment of our population. The cost of building a new kitchen is a small fraction of the county’s reserve funds. We could fund the project from our reserve funds and still maintain our AAA bond rating or possibly find funding from overages of other county projects or by re-evaluating our fiscal priorities. This is not a project that can be put on the back burner. Decisions need to be made as soon as possible so there is no interruption in service to those vulnerable seniors who rely on MOW for their daily meals and personal interaction.

Also, while the county must identify a viable public transportation plan for all Johnson County residents, it is interesting to note that according to a recent Rutgers University study, 21% of people 65 and older do not drive. Furthermore, the 65 and older population will be 20% of the total population by the year 2030. That’s one in five persons. We must develop a reliable, on-demand transportation alternative for our seniors. Being able to get to doctors’ appointments and get to events that provide social interaction is critical to their quality of life and overall well-being. The AAA and COA have identified a possible, innovative solution that warrants a closer look and more in-depth discussion. A possible collaboration with Uber or an Uber-like service, geared specifically for seniors who are unable to maneuver the challenges of today’s technology, is one alternative worth considering. Funding could be found through a combination of minimal user fees and county subsidies. Even beginning with a pilot program would be a start and a first step toward providing a more independent lifestyle for many seniors.

Again, let’s stress that the BOCC has declared that “strengthening AND financing the appropriate level of service to meet the needs of the county’s vulnerable populations” is a priority. Just as a comparison, Johnson County has a senior adult population of approximately 122,000 people, with a total AAA budget of $4.3 million. Out of that total, the county allocates $830,270 to aging services, which results in a per person expenditure of approximately $6.92. By comparison, Sedgwick County (Wichita) services about 112,000 people and has a total AAA budget of $10.9 million. Out of that total, Sedgwick County allocates more than $3 million to aging services, bringing their per person expenditure to $27.58.

These improvements, building a new MOW kitchen and launching a pilot program for an on-demand senior transportation system, do not have to result in any type of mill levy increase or any other type of tax increase for Johnson County residents. The county has the funds to make this happen. The BOCC needs to come together and agree on a solution before an urgent situation turns into a crisis.

In an effort to bring these issues to the forefront of the county’s conversation, the Johnson County COA is hosting an Aging Forum on behalf of the AAA on Monday, October 21, at the Arts and Heritage Center on Metcalf. The forum is scheduled from 11 a.m.–3 p.m. Whether you are a senior, a caregiver, a business owner, a healthcare provider or a community member, if you live in Johnson County and are interested in being part of this conversation please contact Karen Weber, COA chair, at 913-661-0550 or [email protected]. The public is invited to attend, but seating is limited. The COA is passionate about serving this segment of our population and it is our hope that our community is, as well.

If you have any questions or comments, please feel free to contact Commissioner Steve Klika at 913-715-0433 or at [email protected].

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